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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Smoke drifting across international borders shrouds the normally clear skies of Singapore. © Maureen Mecozzi
Smoke drifting across international borders shrouds the normally clear skies of Singapore.

© Maureen Mecozzi

December 1997

Where there's smoke, there's ire

A passion for the environment finally may be sparked as residents of Southeast Asia endure months of grey skies and choking air.

Maureen Mecozzi

October 1, 1997

In the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, when someone asks "Where are you going?" it's polite to reply with the phrase: Makan angin. It means "eat wind" – to step out for a breath of fresh air.

For months now it has not been possible to makan angin in Indonesia, Malaysia, and many other parts of Southeast Asia. An area as large as the contiguous United States has been blanketed by smoke from fires raging in forests and plantations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Coupled with the effects of the capricious weather phenomenon known as El Nino and the inexperience of Indonesia, a developing country hampered by corruption, it's possible the fires will burn for months, even years to come.

The choking smoke that has caused more than 500 deaths and continues to send thousands to hospitals and clinics for lung ailments, eye irritations and skin rashes may eventually produce some good: The problem has sparked genuine grassroots concern about the environment, an issue typically bulldozed aside in the path of the region's booming economies.

What's fanning the fires?

The "haze" – to use the local euphemism for the smoke – is not a one-time event. It's an annual occurrence arising from age-old agricultural practices and modern-day economic imperatives. But it is especially bad this year, for a number of reasons.

Burning generally begins in June. The small farmers of Indonesia have long used slash-and-burn methods to clear plots in the lowland rainforests and swamps for growing bananas, papayas, rice and other staples. Although there are many "smallholders" using slash-and-burn on Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian state in Borneo) their actions alone cannot account for the magnitude of the problem this year.

It's estimated that at a minimum, 80 percent of the fires have been caused by the cultivation practices of large oil palm and pulpwood plantation owners and agricultural conglomerates. Burning is the cheapest way for companies to clear large tracts of forest and scrubland for new plantations, and to dispose of waste wood on old sites. High palm oil prices in recent years have prompted an increase in the land cleared for new plantations. The growing number of forest tracts managed for pulpwood have been intensively logged; they are now more open and drier than the dense, wet jungle, and thus more susceptible to fire.

Between 1.2 and 1.5 million acres have been burnt since mid-June, and the smoke and fire will likely continue for some time. First, the thick layer of peat that lies underneath the plantations – in some places it's as deep as 18 feet – has caught fire. Peat fires are difficult to extinguish; they can smolder for years. Exposed coal seams also are burning in some places.

Second, the annual fires have been exacerbated by this year's El Nino, a weather pattern caused by exceptionally warm currents in the Pacific Ocean and the reversal of the trade winds. The trade winds usually blow from South America to Asia, but in an El Nino year, the winds are reversed: Moist warm air is blown from Asia to South America. The effect causes severe drought in parts of Asia and Australia, and heavier than normal rainfall in North and South America. Without the tempering effects of rain, the fires set in Sumatra and Borneo just keep on burning.

Third, the fires aren't going to stop if people continue to set them. Despite the foul smoke which no one can escape, landowners large and small persist in lighting new fires. They needn't fear retribution: The Indonesian government, unwilling to enforce existing laws and clamp down on well-connected plantation owners and multinational conglomerates, and unable to control hundreds of small landowners, has been slow to act. Indonesia's forestry and environment ministries were aware in the spring that drought conditions would make this year's fires especially dangerous, yet a fire command post was not set up until late August. The country imposed a half-hearted ban on burning only in mid-September, prompted by complaints from neighbors Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, all of which have been seriously harmed by the smoke.

Refusing to accept the immediate gravity of the problem the government ministries declined offers of help from other countries, preferring instead to engage in futile bickering over who was responsible for the blazes. By the time Indonesian President Suharto decided to yell "Fire!" the damage had already been done.

Countries near and far offered assistance – Malaysia has sent firefighters, Singapore is providing satellite images, Thailand, Japan and the U.S. offered water bombers and other firefighting equipment, France has sent medical experts, and the United Nations has sent shipments of face masks for children and the elderly. Despite the aid, it appears the only thing that can bring the situation under control now will be a shift in the weather. The northeast monsoon rains, which typically arrive in mid-October, are expected to be delayed due to El Nino until late November.

Daily life in the smoke

The sun – the most imposing feature of the tropical landscape – has vanished. Once-brilliant blue skies are shrouded in dull, oppressive grey. The drenching afternoon rains that fell with such regularity are now intermittent sprinkles, and a fine soot comes in with the warm evening breeze.

The smoke has cast a pall on the vibrant street life of Southeast Asia's cities. From the city-state of Singapore to Bandar Seri Begawan, capital of the Sultanate of Brunei, from Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to Indonesia's major city, Jakarta, people have been advised to close the windows and stay inside.

That's easier said than done in the tropics, where many homes and schools don't have windows, and those that do often are not air-conditioned. It's not much of a choice: Choking on the smoke outside, or sitting in a stuffy room inside while the temperature hovers in the high 80s and you breathe in the same air that's out there.

Pollution index numbers are bandied about like last week's NBA scores. Singapore uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's PSI (Pollutant Standards Index, ranging from 1-500); Malaysia follows what's called the API (Air Pollution Index, ranging from 0-1000); Indonesia may use an index, but the levels have not been reported in area media. The indexes measure five major air pollutants: dust and ash, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

PM10 – particulate matter less than 10 microns – is the pollutant causing the most concern. Created from burning dry wood and green vegetation, PM10 at high levels causes breathing difficulties. People have been advised to wear masks when the indexes soar past 200 on the PSI and 286 on the API, but the masks that are available are surgical masks, which don't offer much protection against PM10. Industrial masks with appropriate filters would be well beyond the budgets of the people who need them most.

With air quality levels frequently in the "unhealthy" (101-200 PSI) and "very unhealthy" (201-300 PSI) range, clinics and hospitals throughout the region have been jammed with people young and old suffering from asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems inflamed by the smoke. Hospital admissions have been up 20 percent and higher in some areas.

Those with run-of-the-mill symptoms – red, itchy eyes, stuffed-up sinuses, skin rashes, headaches and sore throats – have been told to use aspirin, eye wash and cough drops, drink plenty of water and eat cucumbers, reputed in Chinese medicine to coat and protect the mucous membranes of the nose and lungs. Barring that, the only other remedy is to leave Southeast Asia altogether, a suggestion which was seriously offered by a Malaysian lawmaker as a solution for the millions of people plagued by the foul air.

The smoke is limiting life in the region in all sorts of ways. If school is in session – it's been canceled often in Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, where at one point visibility had been reduced to an arm's length and the API hit 851 – it's likely the phys ed classes won't be held outdoors, as they normally are. Taoist and Buddhist associations have asked devotees to cut back on burning incense and paper sacrifices, to not add to the smoke. Embassies and multinational corporations are sending staff home on emergency leave. Everyone's clothes reek of smoke. And the bustling open-air hawker centers, where a cheap, tasty meal and a sweet cup of thick kopi (coffee) can be had most anytime of the night or day are uncharacteristically silent.

To the dismay of businesspeople and travelers, area airports have been closed and airlines frequently have been forced to delay or cancel flights throughout the region due to low visibility. The smoke has been linked to a tragic plane crash in Sumatra, in which 234 people lost their lives, and to a collision of two ships in the Straits of Malacca that killed 29 crewmen. Driving a car or motorcycle, already hazardous in a region where the rules of the road are taken as friendly but unsolicited advice, can be pure folly when the haze is thick.

One region's misfortune is proving to be another region's bounty: While fewer travelers are making Southeast Asia a destination, more Southeast Asians are heading to Australia for fresh air. Travel agents in Singapore report bookings to "down under" have been up 60 percent.

People bear the daily unpleasantness with stoicism, even humor. The local joke is that there's no need to smoke kretek, the fragrant Indonesian cigarettes flavored with cloves, because breathing in the air is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes or more a day. It would be funny if it wasn't true.

How is the environment faring?

Little has been said about the fires' effect on the environment, partly because no national parks or forest preserves are burning (yet), partly because the environment is not a focal issue in the region (yet). It may very well become a major issue in the future as awareness, population pressure and increasingly intolerable pollution combine to push the environment toward the top of the political agenda in Southeast Asia.

The lowland tropical rainforests in Sumatra and Kalimantan are among the most biologically rich ecosystems on Earth. These forests are not adapted to fire; should they burn, they would be irreparably damaged, and the habitat and food web for orangutans, proboscis monkeys and scores of other endangered plant and animal species destroyed.

According to the Indonesian Association of Medicine Plants Exporters, more than 100 species of medicinal plants, some of which grow only in the wild, have been lost in the fires. Lacking adequate protection, a nation's biodiversity, economic opportunities, and culture – herbal medicine or jamu is an Indonesian hallmark – are going up in smoke.

In yet another sad illustration of the fact that pollution respects no national borders, migratory birds passing through the thick smoke from Indonesia's fires are dying on the western Philippine island of Palawan.

There are signs the smoke has pushed people across a threshold of silence. Pointed comments on government actions formerly spouted only by opposition leaders and dissidents are now coming from the average citizen on the street and being widely published in newspapers and magazines. Public demonstrations by nongovernmental organizations in Kuala Lumpur, especially poignant with large numbers of teenaged participants wearing masks, have nudged the government to bring environmental lawsuits to speedy resolution. Indonesian citizens, shamed that their country has lost face for bungling the crisis, are demanding accountability for the smoke; the government has promised a "total relook"of its environmental regulations.

All countries in the region have a common interest in reducing the pollution from the Indonesian fires and avoiding a recurrence next year. If the Southeast Asian countries can quench the fires together, there's hope they can find solutions to the other difficult environmental problems they can no longer ignore. It's no small task. Despite the region's rapid economic growth, some of the countries still lack the basics, like drinkable water, sanitary sewage handling, and waste collection. Exhaust from vehicles on overcrowded highways chokes the big cities, while unregulated industries pump toxins into the water and air.

Meanwhile, the greatest danger from the fires has yet to be revealed. The World Health Organization observed that the effects on people from prolonged exposure to PM10 particulates won't show up until 20 or 30 years from now.

A hundred years ago Wisconsin's northern forests were often aflame, the result of logging practices that assumed the resource was inexhaustible. Our forebears discovered it was not. Only decades of public outcry, political will, education and legal enforcement finally returned the state's forest resource to relative health. If the Southeast Asian countries avail themselves of the experiences of many nations around the globe, perhaps their environmental recovery process will not take so long.

WNR Associate Editor Maureen Mecozzi was in the Southeast Asian country of Singapore when the smoke covered the region and captured international attention.